Tag Archives: suffering

God’s Kind of Woman

img_1998Reading Peter’s description of the model Christian woman used to send me onto yet another personality diet. Desperately wanting to be the sort of woman who was beautiful in God’s sight, I would attempt to reduce the number of opinionated words I spoke, subdue my boisterous spirit, and lower the level of leadership I naturally took. But try as I might to fit my rotund personality into the tiny box that this passage seemed to construct for me, it was only a matter of time until I would come bursting back out.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
1 Peter 3:1-4

Discouraged and defeated, I prayed that God would re-create me as a more passive, demure version of myself. My picture of His ideal was a soft-voiced woman, listening intently to the men around her and unobtrusively serving their physical needs so they could go on doing the significant spiritual work God had called them to. Next to women who were naturally endowed with quiet natures and gifts of service, I felt less godly. If God wanted me to be a mild, behind-the-scenes woman, then why did He curse me with a sharp mind, pastoral heart, and assertive nature?

Obviously many of my jagged edges were in dire need of sanding down, as God saw fit do through painful but purifying life experiences. As any young leader has to learn, my tongue did need some reigning in, my Tiggerish traits did need more self-restraint to prevent me from bouncing all over others, and my will needed to be trained in submission before it could be qualified for leadership.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

But coming out the other side of all that, the question still remained: what kind of woman does God like best? I wish I would have read that 1 Peter passage more carefully years ago, because through more recent study I finally noticed the hearty clue it drops at the end. Who were these holy women of old who were being held up as examples for first-century Christian women to imitate? What was it that God commended these Old Testament women for in their own lifetimes? By examining their life stories, especially the way they used their voices, did or did not assert leadership, and related to the men in their lives, I hoped to better interpret what Peter had in mind when he what he wrote what he did.

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.
Hebrews 11:11

Starting with Sarah, the matriarch of our faith, I see a woman who heroically spoke up before kings to protect her husband by offering her own body in place of his. Far from being a passive pushover, she proactively embraced the promise God had made to her husband, travelling homelessly with him at her own peril and (albeit abusively) seeking to produce a descendent for him through her own servant. In honor of her faith, God insisted on establishing His holy nation through her, not just her husband. He also named her in the Hebrews hall of faith.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:31
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse…
Matthew 1:5

The Hebrew midwives stood up to the King of Egypt, using their voices to protect the unborn. Likewise Rahab stood up to her male authorities, covering for the foreign men who had come to her brothel for shelter. These women were expressly commended by God for the proactive leadership they took, not giving in to fear but by faith entrusting themselves to God. And, as He did for Sarah, God established their lines in reward for their faithful service, even naming Rahab in His own Son’s genealogy.

God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Deborah completely turns my docile picture on its head. Though appropriately reticent to take leadership of the army, she had no qualms about judging the Israelites who voluntarily came to her for wisdom, justice, and a word from God. Her voice was one that God expected these men to heed, not to silence. General Barak got seriously shamed for ignoring her words. And contrary to how we often hear her story interpreted, the author of Judges presents her position as prophetess and judge as perfectly normal, even for a married woman. It wasn’t through her husband that God chose to speak to His people—it was through her. The victorious outcome of her story stands as testimony to God’s delight in this godly woman’s bold leadership and outspoken faith.

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. …you are a woman of noble character.
Ruth 3:10-11
David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day…
1 Samuel 25:32-33

Abigail overrode her foolish husband, going behind his back to save it. Ruth no longer had a husband to save but instead dedicated her initiative-taking, competent self to saving her dead husband’s mother. Both of these women took leadership through their bold words and their heroic deeds, gently shaming great men into doing what was right (or in David’s case, stopping him in his tracks from doing something horribly wrong). And both the landed-gentry Boaz and his warlord great-grandson David thanked these unexpected leaders for their kindness and considered themselves blessed beyond rubies to get such noble women as lifelong-allies.

My goal as a woman is to blossom within the full range of beautiful role models God has given me to imitate.

This will have to suffice for now as a representative sampling of the holy women of old. But what stands out to me is that these women were a far cry from the silent, second-string players that I had assumed God likes His women to be. They raised their voices, engaged their minds, and asserted their strength for the good of those around them, even when that meant functioning outside of cultural norms and established authority.

The point is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box.

If these are the sorts of examples that Peter was holding up for us in his call to a feminine, unflappable faith, then there is room for my personality in God’s definition of beauty, too. The point isn’t to change God’s Word to adapt to all shapes and sizes, but it is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box. My goal as a woman is no longer to conform to the objectified ideal of the Sunday school magazines, but rather to blossom within the full range of beautiful models God has given me to imitate.

After all, as the passage in 1 Peter concludes, God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

The Infertility Gospel

Again, Lord?

My heart breaks each time I hear news of a couple losing another unborn child. One loss is enough, but as the death toll rises, grief stacks on grief until hope reaches its breaking point.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:16

What happened to the promise you made to our first parents? I know that sin didn’t make childbearing easy, but you set our hopes on the fact that we would eventually succeed. After all, isn’t fruitfulness what you created us for?

So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Genesis 1:28

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

For Christian men and women, the desire to have children is so much more than just starry-eyed dreams of tiny toes and baby announcements. It is the fulfillment of our God-given commission to reproduce little images of ourselves, to love and nurture them as He does us, and to fill the earth with their serving hands and worshiping voices. Our bodies and our hearts long for this like a sculptor’s fingers long for a bit of clay or a writer longs for pen and paper.

So when we give childbearing our best shot, when we once more risk the pain of failure or loss, what are we to think when God doesn’t bless us with a living child? What hope can we cling to for the woman whose womb won’t carry or for the couple who simply can’t conceive?

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:33-35

Strangely, I think this is exactly the issue the Ethiopian eunuch was wrestling with as he pored over Isaiah’s words on the road out of Jerusalem. In them he found a kindred spirit—another Servant whose “life” had been humiliatingly cut off and who found Himself without the honor or joy of offspring. And yet this Man’s story didn’t dead end there. If there was hope for Him, perhaps there was also a way forward for this infertile man.

And somehow the good news about Jesus that Philip was able to explain to the eunuch satisfied that quest. Was the good news simply that Jesus had died to take away his sins, or is there something in the gospel that also addressed the pain and disgrace of his infertility?

…and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great…
Isaiah 53:10-12

Looking further in the passage he had been reading, the answer begins to dawn. After the anguish of His suffering and the dark night of the grave, the Servant would somehow find Himself with more children than any one body could produce. Because of His self-sacrificing investment in the lives of many, He would be honored among the great patriarchs who normally only achieved that status through their impressive numbers of children.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Luke 11:27-28

The good news about infertility is that, in Christ, family and childbearing have been redefined. Mothers and brothers are now those who have been brought near through His blood and who share in the work of nurturing and teaching the rest of God’s children. Fathers are those who mentor and shape those who are younger in the faith (or not yet in the faith.) And children are those whom we have the pleasure of watching as they grow in faith and fruitbearing.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… To Timothy my true son in the faith…
1 Timothy 1:2
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Romans 16:13

Yes, our hearts and our bodies still long to produce biological children to hold and to love. And of course we ache and grieve when we are unable to do so. But that is not the only way to go about fulfilling our created purpose. The joy of all believers, both those with and without babies of their own, is that the Great Commission redefines the Creation Mandate. We get to spread our tents wider than we could have ever imagined, loving children that were not born to us and investing ourselves in the nurture of people with whom we would not otherwise have shared a bond.

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back…
Isaiah 54:1-2

I have witnessed this joy in the face of the Nigerian man who told me that though none of his biological children are still living, he is the father of more children than he can count (including three of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram whom he took in after their rescue). I feel this joy as God brings to me exponentially more spiritual children to counsel and mentor than the four unborn children I lost. And I cling to this joy for the sake of those whose wombs are bare and whose cradles remain empty.

The gospel for the eunuch is the good news for you. In God’s family, you can have more kids than the rest of us.

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

The Slog to Glory

IMG_0587My family and I set out to climb a mountain last weekend.

Let’s just say that the idea of making it to the summit of a Highland munro was more glorious than the reality of actually doing it. Images of the Von Trapp family cresting a grassy, Alpine peak to soaring strains of “Climb Every Mountain” came back to mock me as we slogged across the prerequisite boggy plain. At times our lofty goal was reduced to simply trying to take the next few steps without being sucked down in the mud. And that beautiful vertical ascent I had imagined involved a lot more back-and-forth trudging (to the tune of whining children) than climbing from glory to glory. Despite our burning lungs and quivering calves, the top of the mountain seemed to loom even farther overhead than when we had started. In frustration, my youngest child finally expressed what I was feeling:IMG_0613

“Why are we even doing this?”

If I’m brutally honest, I have to admit that permutations of this question have risen in my mind at different times during my long walk of faith. And I witness the same deep disillusionment in other discouraged believers, trying to find a positive spin on why their lives and ministries have not turned out as they had expected .

IMG_0584We set out with glorious expectations of victorious living and mountaintop experiences with God. We are fortified with stories of great heroes of the faith who seemed to effortlessly leap over challenge after challenge, buoyed up by their overcoming faith. And yet when we get hit in the face by crisis after crisis, or bogged down by the life-sucking sludge of everyday struggle, we are tempted to lose heart.

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

We begin to wonder why we work so hard to accomplish so little, why one hard-won step forward inevitably results in a downhill slide back. Doesn’t God want us to make it to the top? Why does the path have to be so steep, our struggle to climb it so constant? In the face of so many insurmountable odds, we are sorely tempted to sit down and settle for spiritual mediocrity.

Why are we even doing this?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”
Hebrews 10:35-38

No one forced us to choose this difficult path of faith, and no one is forcing us to keep moving forward in ministry. We chose it because we believe in the One who called us. Yes, we believe in the miserable outcome for those who do not respond to Him in obedient faith. But it’s not really fear of hell that motivates us. It is love for God, and an overwhelming desire to see that look of delight on His face when we finally crest the last summit.

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.
Hebrews 10:39, 11:26-27

The truth is that we really are members of that great cloud of witnesses, ones whose very transformed nature it is to keep going despite ourselves. They kept going not because it was somehow easier for them to keep believing or because the trials they faced were any less daunting, but because their deeper longing for God won out over their immediate desire for comfort and security.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. …If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

When I look for what earned these “faith hall of famers” a spot on the list, I don’t find major accomplishments or grand success stories. In fact, most of them died long before they reached the top. Abel got killed; Enoch simply kept walking. Noah got up each day and added a few more planks to the most futile project anyone could imagine. Abraham meandered as a refugee in a land he would never own; and Moses died gazing at it from a distance.

They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Hebrews 11:37-39

What set these men and women apart were not their heroic feats of faith but rather their unsung refusal to quit. By any human standard, they lived their lives as losers, people who had very little to show for all they had invested. And yet they looked to God for their stamp of approval. And He deemed them worthy. In fact, He is proud to be called their God.

God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, …let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 11:40-12:3

The same Spirit that kept these saints of old going is now at work in us, prodding us to keep putting one wobbly foot in front of the other. They cheer us on as we finish what they started. Yes, the slog is slow and mucky, but it is taking us somewhere. Our victory is not in how quickly or easily we make the summit, but in how faithful we are to take each inglorious step along the way.

Why are we even doing this?

For the joy set before us.IMG_0641

Sharing at Grace & Truth

When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Dead before God

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein,
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Dear Weary Warrior,

I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. You have braved so many battles, stood strong through storms that would have sunk a lesser man.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psalm 88:15-17

Anyone looking at all you have been through might be tempted to wonder why God has been so hard on you. After all, aren’t you His son? And yet He has allowed blow after blow to knock the wind out of you. The painful events that He has ordained for your life are so huge that your sufferings have come to define you.

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psalm 88:3-5

No wonder you are a dead man, drained of life and numb before God. No wonder all you can do is lie there like a corpse, unable to work, unable to fight, unable to feel anything other than exhaustion beyond your years. You have born enough trouble and grief to count for many lifetimes. In fact, you have shouldered the weight of the world, and that cross has crushed you.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
Psalm 88:6-9

Does the darkness of the grave disturb you? Do you feel like you should be able to resist this, too, to somehow throw off the grave clothes and dig your way out from underneath that massive stone? And yet you simply can’t. The life has been pummeled out of you until all that is left is an empty shell. As much as you would like to escape this current state, there is nothing you can do but lie there in the grave: helpless, still, undone.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psalm 88:10-12

Are you wondering about God’s purposes for your life? Statements about your glorious future probably feel like a mockery right now. The only thing you can see in front of you is the ugly black wall that traps you in. How in the world can your current condition bring glory to the God you have served? It seems to testify against His faithfulness and love, not to them. Wouldn’t a dramatic deliverance serve His purposes better than debilitating oblivion?

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. …even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you…
Psalm 139:7-12

But that isn’t what He has chosen for you right now. Resurrection might come in the morning, but for now He has provided night. This grave is your shelter from the storms that await you outside. It blocks the blinding light and muffles the sharp sounds that threaten to overwhelm you. Snuggle into its swaddling clothes and let the darkness hold you tight. You are here with God.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139:13-15

He has been with you from before the time you had consciousness, before the time you were aware of your identity or your commission. He created you with the physical and emotional limitations that now hold you down. His perfect design of your body included the inability to pass through every storm unscathed, to resist succumbing to the death that now defines you.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Psalm 139:16-18

In fact, this day is among those that He wrote for you in His book. For today your assignment is not to save the world, to preach the kingdom, to heal the masses. Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God. Tomorrow will eventually come, when hope dawns and the “new you” emerges. But God is not in a rush to get you there. He created this gap between death and resurrection for a reason.

Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God.

This is your space to simply be with Him, the Sabbath for your soul. Sleep in His presence. Lie numbly and do nothing in His presence. Cry if you want to, or let Him do it for you if your tears won’t come. You don’t have to answer the questions of the cosmos or figure out how this is working together for your good. You have committed your spirit into His hands. Now simply let Him hold you.

Today, darkness is your friend.

Redistributing God’s Wealth

attachmentSpending last week with a northern Nigerian bishop felt surprisingly like riding around with a mafia godfather.

Wherever we turned there was another person waiting to tell him their troubles and ask him for help. Again and again, I watched him reach into his pocket and peel off a few more layers from his rapidly shrinking wad of well-worn bills. And again and again, I watched another person walk away, relieved of the heavy burden they had been carrying.

What inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

I confess I had to repeatedly suppress the urge to stop him. I knew that, unlike a mafia don, this “godfather” had a very limited supply with which to meet the overwhelming demand. My forward-thinking mind started fretting about how he would pay his own bills, both current and upcoming. With two kids in college and a mortgage to pay off, he had his own share of financial troubles to worry about.

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.
Proverbs 19:17; 28:27

But the fact was that he did have the cash in hand. His bills for this month were covered, and other peoples’ were not. As he continued to distribute his meager resources, he explained his economic reasoning to me. “If I hold this back for my own future need when someone else needs it today, I am not being a faithful steward of God’s resources. If God has supplied enough for me today, He will also be faithful to supply again tomorrow.”

In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.

A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
Proverbs 21:20; 13:22

Humbled, I still wanted to reason with him. What about wise financial planning for your family’s future? What about ensuring that you don’t run short and then become a burden to others? Wasn’t his simply a non-Western, communally focused approach to resources as opposed to our equally valid (and perhaps economically superior) approach to investing in the future?

But the truth is, something about his childlike faith appeals to me deeply. God took His people through forty years of wilderness economy to train them in the same approach. Each day He supplied enough goods for that day only. There were no viable “leftovers” that could be saved and invested as capital for the next day. And as a result, no one could begin to trust in his own hard work or careful planning. Their only reliable resource was the Lord of the manna.

Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

Still, my capitalist mind wants to argue, those were exceptional circumstances. Once they settled in the land, were they not responsible to plan wisely and invest accordingly? Weren’t they right to hold back enough seed for next year’s planting?

He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Luke 10:27-28

And again I know that I am avoiding the real issue. Of course it is godly and right to save for future needs. But how often do I use that as a trump card to avoid giving to today’s needs. Ultimately, what inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
Luke 10:29-32

And this is where my problem lies. Who is my neighbor? For whom am I financially responsible? Like the Pharisees, I want to erect relational boundaries to protect myself from having to sacrifice my resources to meet other people’s needs. This is why I am tempted to avoid eye contact with the beggar on the street, or to back-peddle on those conversations in which an acquaintance starts to talk about her financial need. I’m afraid of getting caught in a situation where I will feel guilty for not giving.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Luke 10:33-35

But Jesus rips those walls down with His answer: my neighbor is the person I encounter. My responsibility is to redistribute whatever resources God has entrusted to me, first in the care of my immediate family, but also in the care of my extended “family.” And if ensuring tomorrows’ provision is more important to me that sharing todays’, then I may find myself in the same position as the rich man who refused to take responsibility for his neighbor, Lazarus. Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37

Watching a third-world bishop in action has convicted this first-world lay person. My economically advanced reasons for not loving my neighbor as myself have been unmasked for what they truly are: a self-reliant lack of faith. Of course allowing my time and money to be drained by other people’s needs makes no sense in a godless, survival-of-the-fittest world. But if God really reigns over seed and harvest, investment and returns, will He not look after all my needs?

I am left with no recourse but to go and do likewise.

The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

Missing Purple

attachmentBombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…

I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.

Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.

But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.

…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.

I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.

You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26

The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18

The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.

But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.

We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.

We are missing the purple.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9

If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.

We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4

Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.

If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.

What are the colors in your worldview window?